Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Verbatim and Its Variations

"All component things in the world are changeable. Work hard to gain your own salvation."
—attributed to the Buddha Gotama

"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"            
—attributed to Jesus of Nazareth

"Oh God, let me join the highest companions!"  
—attributed to the prophet Mohammed

Let's say that the three quotes above appeared as choices on a multiple choice quiz, and the question was: Which of these is a true representation of the last words of these religious figures?

To be technically correct, you would need a fourth choice, "none of the above." That is the correct answer, because none of these estimable men, despite their many virtues, spoke English.

Of course you knew that, and you may be thinking to yourself, what a silly question. We pose it to point up the ad-hoc way in which we decide when, under what conditions, and to what degree words and meanings are fungible and when they're not. Fungible? It requires a little explanation here because we're using it in a particular way. Usually when we talk about things being fungible they're things you can touch — or as the VT definition says, goods or commodities. Fungible things are "freely exchangeable for or replaceable by another of like nature or kind in the satisfaction of an obligation." Money is fungible. When you put it in the bank, you have no expectation or requirement that the bank will return to you the same bills and coins you gave them. Grain is fungible; if a farmer deposits hers in her neighbor's silo, she needn't wait till the individual grains she stored there are sold to get money for them. Your car is not fungible; if you take it in for repairs, you expect to get the same car back.

In most contexts we take the fungibility of words and meanings for granted. We have to do this largely because they are not real things anyway; words are symbols, representations of their meanings. Meanings, in turn, are also abstractions: ideas that stand for things that may or may not have tangible existence. When our instincts tell us that we're looking at a linguistic representation that uses words or meanings interchangeable with the ones used on some other occasion, language fungibility works and there isn't a problem.

There are, however, many times when disputes arise about the validity of a particular linguistic representation. When this is the case you can nearly always hear the wheels of someone's agenda grinding in the background, and the arguments for or against the disputed language specimen often revolve around a perceived fungibility violation.

Let's take a couple of diverse examples as a place to begin.

(1) You have, in the ultrafungibility corner, a group of people who believe that their particular English translation of the Bible represents the infallible word of God or Jesus. Their conviction is that their English Bible is completely and satisfactorily expressive of sacred truth and that there is therefore no need for them to inquire of precedents, scholarship, variants, other interpretations, or original languages. It just is what it is: God's word, conveniently made available in a language that they understand. Critics of such a position — secular Bible scholars perhaps, or agnostics — declare a fungibility foul and argue that the Bible is a selective and agenda-driven collection of religious texts from an extended historical period, written in languages that are imperfectly understood today, and that modern translations are simply derivative artifacts from something that is itself an artifact — not a record of what God said, did, or decreed.

(2) Screenwriters of television or film drama develop scripts for the purposes of entertainment and supply invented dialogue to the characters in their stories in order to create what they hope their viewers will consider to be verisimilitude. When the dramas thus devised are set in a specific historical period, the screenwriters may make occasional, inadvertent slips by inserting language into the mouths of characters that was not actually in use at the time represented in the drama. Take, for example, the scripts of programs such as Mad Men and Downton Abbey, since they have been discussed in Ben Zimmer's Word Routes column here before. The screenwriters, whether knowingly or not, are assuming unlimited language fungibility by letting modern words express meanings or sentiments from an earlier time. But there arises a ruckus from the foes of unfettered fungibility, where practitioners of the modern sport of spotting anachronisms in television fiction are up in arms that invented people spout words and phrases that did not exist in the historical period that they fictionally represent.

These two linguistic phenomena are hardly comparable, you may be thinking, but they do share the element of having proponents and detractors with regard to their authenticity, and the disputes include a question of whether language fungibility works or not. In the first case, one audience of the text — Bible fundamentalists — assume complete fungibility, which detractors dispute on a number of grounds. In the second case, the authors of the text are the fungibility champions, while their critics argue that fungibility, like time, can only travel in one direction. Curiously though, no one seems to cry foul when film characters speak in a modern language they couldn't have known; everyone loves Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, the great Anglophone slave rebel of antiquity.

Another element the two cases share — and one that provides a different way of looking at the them — is the question of narrative. Here we mean narrative in its most general sense, the quality of constituting a coherent story. Language users love narratives; indeed, we construct our lives out of them. Languages love narrative too, insofar as they all have rules to ensure the coherence of narratives: that is, grammar. But no natural languages that we know of, despite the fascinating wealth of interesting features by which they represent aspects of meaning, carry inflections or other markers to indicate degrees of distance from original meaning, or any other qualifications of that relationship. In other words, language itself does not carry any markers to show how near or far a given expression is from an earlier or different one that it represents. If you want to characterize that relationship explicitly you have to use metadata — language about language, such as "translated from," "he said," "I'm paraphrasing," etc.

So is it possible or even desirable to devise sensible guidelines for determining when language strays too far from original meaning — whether via translation, paraphrase, quotation without context, or reported speech? Probably not, because the business of language is narrative, not authenticity. Questions about linguistic authenticity arise when there is a disparity in narrative requirements or aims between the creators of a text and some or all of its consumers.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 4th 2012, 1:34 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
If I understand your point correctly, basically any translation, even from one modern language to another, is not completely fungible. Or more precisely, perhaps, translations are "fungible enough" to convey much of the sense of the original, such that we can understand and enjoy things written in other languages. But the fungibility of language in translation might work something like currency exchange, inasmuch as I can exchange dollars for (e.g.) Euros, and I can buy things, but I don't really have dollars in the end. This seems to be the case for language where ultraprecision might be important (legal texts, ?religious texts), and where connotation is an important part of the language (poetry, humor). Am I getting that right?
Monday June 4th 2012, 2:12 AM
Comment by: Madrigal (CROYDON Australia)

I enjoyed your post, it made me think. My thought was that history itself is not factual but interpretative, so seeking authenticity in historic, fictional language implies that the greater historical truth has been found, which is quite unlikely.

I love your use of fungible and thought you might like to read a short blog I wrote on "fun" words
I am not sure whether I need to change my view based on your use of it.

Monday June 4th 2012, 2:49 PM
Comment by: Russell C. (Wooster, OH)
In an allegedly "unexpurgated" version of "Peter Pan" that I picked up in a bookstore in the US, the end of one chapter talks about the fairies heading home after "a party." In my similarly "unexpurgated" UK version, the fairies were heading home after "an orgy." Now clearly ONE of them must have been "expurgated" and I'm guessing the former was changed to protect sensitive little ears from the word "orgy," which is far too risky for modern ears. The word "orgy" was used in the early 20th century to mean a drunken party, not an opportunity for group sex.

For people interested in etymology, the difference between the two "narratives" is instructive: For the 21st century child reading a book (it's an old-fashioned device that uses paper and printing - a bit like an iPad or Kindle but heavier) the choice of "party" doesn't really affect the narrative per se.

So your "narrative" versus "veracity" notion makes sense. We just have to decide whether we are wanting good narrative or painful accuracy (which means that many of use who read classical texts have to go back to school to learn Greek and Latin!)
Monday June 4th 2012, 2:54 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Mike, I like your analogy with currency exchange, I think that's apt. My point, if there is one, is very fuzzy at the end and I mainly wanted to open up the idea for discussion. What strikes me generally is that people are ready to take fungibility completely for granted in most cases and when they object to some language use as being inauthentic, it's simply a case of their rejecting fungibility that they find completely acceptable in other contexts.
Monday June 4th 2012, 5:54 PM
Comment by: Timothy O.
I have heard that if you do not read the Koran in its original Arabic, you are considered not to have read the Koran. Presumably, that solves the problem of what is a valid translation.

To be sure, translations are often said to "lose something," though I also seem to remember that Goethe's translations of Shakespeare were considered by some to be superior to the originals. How that can be, I do not know, except possibly that as separate and individual works of art themselves, they might surpass Shakespeare's work in some fashion.

The translation of advertising catchphrases, trademarks and slogans is sometimes particularly difficult. (Just to be clear, the famous Chevy "Nova" story is completely untrue, and worse than apocryphal.) Rarely is it possible to convey exactly what was meant across multiple languages.

And there is a Zen story of a begging monk who traveled for years begging for money to publish the Sutras. At one point, he visited a village that had just been devastated by a flood and gave all his funds for the aid of the villagers. He then began collecting again, and when he had nearly enough, he came upon a village devastated by an earthquake. Again he gave all of the money for the aid of the village. He began begging a third time, but died before he'd amassed enough. Other monks took up the work, and eventually, collected enough to finish the Sutras. It was said, however, that the first two editions were much more beautiful than the last.
Monday June 4th 2012, 6:54 PM
Comment by: John B.
On the issue of currency exchange, there is another apposite aspect and that is that with each currency exchange you do not get exactly the same value, most often losing at least a little bit of whatever you started with. So with the Euro at the moment in Spain and my return to the US where my translated substance has become less with each translation!
Monday June 4th 2012, 7:39 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Excellent article. I suspect that contemporary Americans have less appreciation of the what is gained or lost in translation (whether from one language to another, one dialect to another, or one time period to another) many fewer of them speak other languages besides English (but perhaps I'm being unfair to our Hispanic compatriots). I have heard that students at Oxford in the first half of the 20th century were required to learn Greek or Latin and to read classical works in the original language as well as in English, so that they might appreciate the qualities of a good translation, as well as to get a better picture of the subtlety of the arguments of the original author.
Tuesday June 5th 2012, 9:39 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Yes a very touchy article indeed.
Fungiblity travels in forward direction-and as it travels from person to person's narrative in generation after generation the original facts of the story or event reversed by that time. Thus moving forward concept is actually a downgrading message of civilization. Imagine a person walking on a street but with each of his steps he continuously circled or making loop in the same vicious point.
The issue here is making progress. Are we progressing reading these fungible narratives that lacks veracity? Answer is "yes" and "no."
Yes in the sense that literacy numbers are increasing in all nation and countries. No in the sense that degradation moral teaching is spreading. The current young generation in all religious faiths avoids listening or reading stories from any religious books.Hundred years from today, the scenario of today's society will be much more different.
Tuesday June 5th 2012, 3:01 PM
Comment by: mac
to Tim,
i followed the link you posted, enjoyed your snooping "fun", especially your quote, "who put the fun in funeral".
i left you a reply which, in essence, says, conversely, we Irish would like to know who took the fun OUT of funeral. there was a time we would partake a wee tipple, relate anecdotes re: virtues and foibles of the departed, shed a tear, share a chuckle and of course, there was the grand song to stir the heart.
Wednesday June 6th 2012, 11:19 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I commented to Ben once that getting bothered by anachronistic language in stories set in times and places where more or less modern English is spoken is a bit like the Uncanny Valley effect. Just as people are happy to accept cartoony representations of humans, they are prepared to accept (in books and movies) English coming out of the mouths of people who clearly didn't speak it, such as ancient Romans, or present-day Russians. But when the graphic representations pass a certain threshold of realism without attaining flawless realism, people are creeped out (e.g. with the animations in _The Polar Express_). Similarly, when the distance between the actual language and its representation gets small enough, but not so small as to disappear (e.g. the distance between American English of the 1960s, and that English as represented on _Mad Men_), some people will complain about the inaccurate representation.
Thursday June 7th 2012, 11:12 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks Neal, that's a valid point: perhaps the smaller the distance, the greater the license for nitpickiness. Like people arguing about what someone said on some other occasion and disagreeing about a single word or phrase. Conversely, the greater the distance, the more you can get away with. Who's going to argue with "And God said, 'Let there be light." Yet, if you look at this phrase in various languages on, the translations are all over the place.
Saturday June 9th 2012, 9:18 PM
Comment by: Peter L. (Columbia City, OR)
Thanks Orin. Anyone having read Beowolf in Olde English understands the value of good narrative. But so much Shakespeare is fun precicely because one has to check many meanings and marvels at the language chosen. Of course the difference between us and King Lear is not as great as Beowolf, and for precision the Bible is studied in Greek and Hebrew, or at least a concorcdance. And what would we do with Lord of the Rings other than make good narrative? Perhaps that is why Pontius Pilate replied to Jesus, "What is truth?"
Sunday July 22nd 2012, 4:05 PM
Comment by: bernardo a. g.
to speak english is not a virtue

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